Rupert Cornwell: Special relationship on the rocks? It's not us, it's them

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Sport, the pop psychologists tell us, is the modern substitute for war. If so, today'sWorld Cup clash between England and the United States ought to be a pretty violent affair.

To judge by some comments in Britain, the US has all but declared war over the BP oil spill. The "special relationship" – so recently resurrected, rhetorically at least, by President Obama – is dead, suffocated by American spite, and an ever-spreading blanket of stinking gunk that no one knows how to staunch.

The truth is somewhat different. British residents in the US are not barricading themselves in their homes, and anti-British militias are not marauding the streets in Washington DC. Yes, Americans are furious, not least because neither their government nor BP can tell them how much oil is spewing daily into the Gulf of Mexico.

But the rage, the entirely understandable desire that "someone pays for this", is not directed at the old colonial power they will be taking on tonight in South Africa. It is directed at a multinational oil company, 39 per cent owned by American shareholders, that happens to have its headquarters in London. And there is nothing xenophobic about the anger.

The reaction would have been similar had Exxon Mobil, Chevron or some other US company been responsible for the spill. That, of course, is scant consolation for BP. At the best of times, hell has few furies quite like sanctimonious American outrage – be that outrage unleashed against the banks of Wall Street, steroid-loaded baseball players, adulterous politicians, or big business. And from BP's point of view, the accident could not have been worse timed.

It occurred in the sour aftermath of the worst recession in 75 years. If the economy is recovering, it doesn't feel like it. This autumn sees Congressional mid-term elections in which incumbents are likely to take a drubbing. All the more reason, therefore, for anxious politicians to lay into the most convenient target to hand – and for this beleaguered administration, run by Democrats likely to bear the brunt of the backlash, to talk especially tough.

BP, the experts seem to say, is rich enough to weather the storm. But they said the same about some of the dozens of companies driven into bankruptcy here since 1982 by asbestos liabilities. BP is in a different financial league, but the Deepwater Horizon calamity could stretch even its resources.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina, which lasted less than 24 hours, cost some $40bn. The current spill has been in progress for 52 days, and may yet continue another two months.

The civil fines will be colossal. In addition, some 200 separate lawsuits have already been filed. Eric Holder, the Attorney General, says "not a dime" of the final bill will be met by the hard-stretched US taxpayer, while the Justice Department talks of "forcing" BP to halt all dividend payments. America's extraterritorial legal reach should never be under-estimated.

Even so, even the worst man-made environmental disaster in US history, in which a British-based company is the villain, is not going to destroy an old international alliance. Wisely, Nigel Sheinwald, the British ambassador, did not mention the spill in a speech extolling US/UK relations at a Virginia university last week. This weekend at least, the most serious transatlantic tensions are playing out not in the Gulf of Mexico, but in the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg.

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